Spalding Gray was considered mainly a performance artist rather than a playwright. He received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978), Rockefeller Foundation (1979), and Edward Albee Foundation (1985) as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1979). He was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985. Despite Gray’s identity as a performance artist, in 1985 he was awarded an Obie Award, a Special Citation for his work as an actor and writer for Swimming to Cambodia. He was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards (Best Male Lead and Best Screenplay) for the film adaptation of the show.
As a performer Gray was involved with many of the important theatrical groups of the mid-to late twentieth century. After leaving Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, he helped found the Wooster Group in 1977, which would go on to be one of the most significant New York companies of the later part of the twentieth century. Despite this storied background, Gray managed to become an even more influential artist once he left the Wooster Group to become a solo artist.
Gray, along with performers such as Laurie Anderson and Eric Bogosian, was credited with bringing a performance-based aesthetic deeper into the mainstream. Gray helped show the mass appeal of “performance art,” a feat that was especially important in the mid-1980’s when National Endowment for the Arts funding was coming under fire. His autobiographical, anecdotal work helped pave the way for other performance artists who explore issues of the self in their work. Gray’s success with his nonaggressive performance pieces opened up the New York downtown theater scene to audiences who might otherwise not have ventured south of Times Square.